Britain’s new Prime Minister Gordon Brown set off an interesting debate this week with his first major statement to the House of Commons, in which he outlined plans for broad constitutional reform.

Some of the measures proposed or under consideration include holding elections on weekends, lowering the voting age to 16, entrenching the independence of the civil service, giving parliament power to vet senior appointments (including possibly some judges), and moving Britain further towards a written constitution with a proper bill of rights.

All good stuff. But before getting too carried away about Brown’s long-hidden reformist impulse, it’s worth noting that these measures are radical only because Britain’s constitution has become so extraordinarily muddled. The main aim is to take the country into the twentieth century, not the twenty-first.

For example, Brown is giving up the power to appoint Anglican bishops, but not dismantling the church establishment itself. Instead it looks like becoming an unaccountable oligarchy, government-owned without being government-run – much like Telstra under the Future Fund.

Nor does he propose to remove the restrictions in the Act of Settlement that bar Roman Catholics from the British throne – another obvious anachronism, and a debate Australia has a real interest in because of the oddly complex relationship between Britain’s monarchy and ours.

Still, it’s interesting that Britain is not alone in embracing change. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has also indicated support for constitutional reform. He promises to increase the opposition’s role in parliamentary committees, and to consider a measure of proportional representation to address the scandal of an electoral system (very like ours) that locks out minorities.

While other countries are going forward, Australia remains stagnant at best – in many respects, our system is less open and democratic than it was a decade ago. That seems to suit the Howard government just fine, but the contenders in this year’s election should be put under much more pressure to explain what they would do differently.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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